David M. Gordon
A discussion of the precolonial history of the interior south-central African polities first described by Jan Vansina in his influential book, Kingdoms of the Savanna, including the Luba (in particular the Luba-Katanga of the mulopwe titleholders), Lunda (the nuclear Lunda, also termed Rund, of the mwant yav titleholders), Lunda-Ndembu, Chokwe, Pende, Luvale, Luluwa, Kanyok, Luba-Kasai, Kuba, Eastern Lunda, Yeke, and Bemba. Considering whether the label “kingdom” applies to these diverse polities, this entry looks at critical and revisionists accounts of oral tradition as well as new interpretations deriving from the study of art, archaeology, ethnographic fieldwork, linguistics, and documentary sources. In addition to (and instead of) kingdoms, this article identifies the creation of alternative political affiliations, in particular a religious association concerned with fertility that became known as the “Luba” and alliances based on fictive kin that became known as “Lunda.” In both these cases—as with related polities—trade and violence during the 18th and 19th centuries ratcheted up the need for centralized polities resembling kingdoms rather than the dynamic affiliations that had existed in prior centuries. In the 19th century, as sovereigns struggled over legitimacy and subjects questioned the power of sovereigns, they both created art, oral traditions, and praises that projected kingdoms and kingship into a vague antiquity.
The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition.
The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200